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North Dakota transgender women to flee US, form group to help others do the same

Rynn Willgohs and Zara Crystal, both transgender women who live in Fargo, are working to set up TRANSport, a nonprofit group that Willgohs envisioned to help other trans people in the U.S. emigrate to more hospitable countries.

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Rynn Willgohs, left, sits with Zara Crystal on Nov. 18, 2022, at Willgohs’ home in Fargo. Willgohs and Crystal are working to set up TRANSport, a nonprofit group that Willgohs envisioned to help other trans people in the U.S. emigrate to more hospitable countries.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum
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FARGO — Rynn Willgohs, a 50-year-old transgender woman living in Fargo, plans to immigrate to Iceland to escape what she describes as a dangerous environment for trans people in the U.S.

Willgohs said, if needed, she will claim asylum upon her arrival in Iceland.

“I need to go somewhere where I know I'm going to be safe,” Willgohs said, where "I know I'm going to be legally protected.”

It was during a summer trip to Iceland that Willgohs realized she felt more at home in Icelandic society than she’d ever felt in the U.S. The fact that she was transgender was not an issue there, Willgohs said, while in the U.S. she always feels threatened or treated as an outsider.

“It’s a whole different world over there,” Willgohs said, explaining that it took some getting used to being seen as just another person.

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Willgohs fears that things could get much worse in the U.S. for transgender people in the coming years, even though they’ve never been easy. She herself endured conversion therapy in 1987, something the American Psychological Association decries as a potentially harmful practice that is “not therapy.”

A key factor in her decision to leave the U.S. is her fear that state and federal governments will roll back protections for trans people, including medical coverage and health care options. She said nationwide there's been a push for anti-transgender legislation .

Willgohs worries her “public existence will be made illegal,” including her right to work and live peacefully.

“I just feel like I’m living in a (expletive) pressure cooker all the time,” she said.

Willgohs isn’t alone in her desire to leave the U.S.

Zara Crystal, a 20-year-old trans woman in Fargo, said she intends to seek asylum in Sweden.

Before leaving, however, both women are working to set up TRANSport , a nonprofit organization that Willgohs envisioned to help other trans people in the U.S. emigrate to more hospitable countries.

TRANSport will help trans people leave the U.S. by assisting with necessary paperwork, paying for associated costs and providing resettlement support.

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The board of directors for the Pride Collective and Community Center , a Fargo nonprofit, voted to incorporate TRANSport under their 501c3 umbrella (Willgohs, who sits on the board, recused herself from the vote). All of TRANSport’s donations will go through the Pride Collective, which will take a percentage of those funds to cover administrative costs.

Lillian Guetter, president of the Pride Collective, said TRANSport is absolutely needed given the political climate in the U.S., noting that she believes the dangers the LGBTQ community faces have grown worse in the last few years.

“The nightclub shooting is a prime example of why this is necessary,” Guetter said of the Nov. 19 attack at a LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that left five people dead and 25 injured.

“We had four years of a particular political party running a smear campaign against the trans community and the drag community,” Guetter said. “(That) puts people in pretty serious danger.”

In recent years far right aggression against the LGBTQ community has ramped up , according to a recent article by USA Today.

TRANSport will start working locally and take national clients on a case-by-case basis.

Guetter personally knows of three trans people in the Fargo-Moorhead area who are interested in using TRANSport’s services. She said she would also consider using TRANSport’s services.

“In comparison to some other countries it is safer (for trans people) in the United States,” she said. "However if you look at Iceland or Norway, we are way behind.”

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Last year’s transgender athlete bill in North Dakota is an example of legislation that adds to Guetter's perception of the U.S. as an unwelcoming place for trans people. The bill, which failed after a veto from Gov. Doug Burgum , would have restricted transgender students in K-12 sports in North Dakota from competing alongside athletes of their identifying gender.

“There is a reason I live on the Minnesota side (of the Red River),” Guetter said. Minnesota’s decision to let people self-identify their gender on their driver’s license is something that makes Guetter feel more welcomed in Minnesota.

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Rynn Willgohs, seen Nov. 18, 2022, in Fargo, does research on countries that offer asylum and works on a Facebook page for TRANSport, a nonprofit group that aims to help trans people in the U.S. emigrate to other countries.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

Now that TRANSport has the backing of the Pride Collective, organizers will start setting up TRANSport’s all-volunteer staff and begin crafting a full vision for the group. A majority of TRANSport's board will consist of people who plan to stay in the U.S., Willgohs said.

When people first arrive in new countries, medical coverage won't always be available right away, something of particular importance to people who want to pursue medical transitions, Willgohs said. “We want to formulate a plan with people to make sure their medical stuff is going to be on track and that they pick a country that is going to fit their needs,” Willgohs said.

TRANSport estimates it will cost the organization about $2,000 to help a trans person settle in a new country. Through donations, TRANSport hopes to help cover the cost of name changes, gender marker changes, hormone treatments, plane tickets and passport costs.

“This is not going to be something that everyone is going to want to do,” Willgohs said, noting that the demand for TRANSport's services may grow as the U.S. political climate changes.

'Marginalized people'

While her experiences in Fargo have been largely positive, Willgohs said she's been targeted for being trans, including being stalked and threatened last summer. She believes her work for transgender rights in Fargo has made her more of a target.

Willgohs said her harassers found out where she lived and began showing up at places she was going. She believes people were getting this information off her Facebook page which prompted her to create a new one.

Willgohs said a man in his 40s once verbally attacked her in the Macy's at West Acres mall, but she fondly remembers a woman in her 70s who stood up for her and told him off.

In the past, she said, people have threatened to attack her with acid, cut off her breasts or sexually assault her.

“I just think that the culture of this country, especially in the rural areas and the red states, is just going to get so bad for marginalized people,” Willgohs said.

Woman riding a horse.
Rynn Willgohs rides a horse in Iceland in the summer of 2022.
Submitted photo

Willgohs, who plans to leave the country before the 2024 presidential election, said she and her wife are pursuing an agreed upon separation before the move. Her wife will be staying in the U.S.

Already, Willgohs has cashed out her retirement savings and purchased an apartment in Iceland. This week she is going back to Iceland for a few days to apply for a job, hopeful that she can avoid the need to claim asylum. She said she'd like to eventually have dual American-Icelandic citizenship.

'Island of inclusivity'

Crystal is eager to immigrate to Sweden in a couple of years “to be able to live in a country that I know cares about me as a citizen and about me as a person, not even disregarding my identity but acknowledging my identity as a part of who I am.”

In fact, she hopes that the last thing she does in the U.S. before hopping on a plane will be to vote in the 2024 presidential election.

“I have a feeling that the moment I get off that plane I am going to feel like I am home,” Crystal said.

Willgohs and Crystal said they intend to stay involved in TRANSport while abroad.

Crystal said she's faced many hardships in Fargo after moving here three years ago, but added that it’s nothing compared to what she experienced in other areas.

“(Fargo) is an island of inclusivity in a sea of places where representation and inclusivity of this sort is not ever seen,” Crystal said. "Right now, trans people can survive and we can thrive in a place like Fargo."

However, Crystal believes that the next few years will see these island havens disappearing across the U.S., and she wants to get out before that happens. She said TRANSport's services are needed even more now than in recent decades.

She said that just within the past two months someone has threatened to slit her throat and run her over with a car. She said she was sexually assaulted on a date, but did not file a police report because she had no faith authorities would do anything.

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Zara Crystal is pictured on Nov. 18, 2022, in Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

Transgender people are at a significant risk for violence in the U.S ., according to a 2021 report by the Human Rights Watch, a national human rights advocacy group.

The report documented how “persistent marginalization puts transgender people, particularly Black transgender women, at heightened risk of violence at the hands of strangers, partners, family members, and law enforcement.”

“Even now it’s dangerous, how much more dangerous is it going to be?” Crystal said.

While the amount of support definitely outweighs the hatred, Crystal said that hatred is a lot easier to focus on.

She is sad for the family and friends she will leave behind, but said she's more sad for the LGBTQ people who “aren’t going to leave, or the people who will get trapped here.”

Crystal said that despite her warnings, many people “shrug it off,” and she fears that soon, U.S. safe havens won’t be enough.

“I’m, like, begging whatever higher power there is that something will happen to change things for the better,” she said.

The high rate of suicide among transgender people paired with the social stigma, fetishization and mistreatment of trans people are some of the reasons that Crystal is wanting to leave.

“We cannot trust anybody in this country,” she said, “and the people we can trust come few and far in between.”

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The Pride Parade moves through downtown Fargo in the summer of 2022.
C.S. Hagen/The Forum

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